Utah lawmaker says BYU police should be as transparent as other departments, will push legislation

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune the campus police offices on the campus of BYU in Provo Wednesday June 1, 2016.

A Provo senator confirmed Tuesday that he plans to push legislation that would make Brigham Young University’s police department subject to the state’s open records laws, potentially ending a legal fight that has made its way to the state Supreme Court.

Whether the private university’s police force should be required to fulfill public records requests has been a subject of debate since 2016. That’s when The Salt Lake Tribune filed a lawsuit arguing that BYU police should be subject to transparency laws because it has “full-spectrum” law enforcement authority. This means BYU officers may stop, search, arrest or use physical force against people, just as any other sworn officer in the state.

The law enforcement arm of the university, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has contended in court filings that it is exempt from the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) because it is part of a private university.

Republican Sen. Curt Bramble said Tuesday that he has been working with the attorney general’s office and officials at BYU to introduce legislation in the session beginning in January that would require BYU’s police force to live up to the standard transparency requirements.

“When a private entity like BYU is granted police powers by the state, the public has a right to have disclosure the same as any other law enforcement agency,” Bramble said. “We’re working through what does that mean in terms of legislation to accomplish that.”

Third District Judge Laura Scott ruled in July in The Tribune’s lawsuit that BYU police is a governmental entity — and therefore subject to state records laws — when it is “acting as a law enforcement agency and/or its officers are acting as law enforcement officers.”

Attorneys for BYU appealed the decision to the Utah Supreme Court, where the case is currently pending.

BYU attorneys argued in May that the police department was created and funded by a private university and, therefore, should not be considered a “governmental entity” under GRAMA. Tribune attorneys argued in response that the department was established by the state 35 years ago when the Legislature gave it policing powers.

Utah’s attorney general’s office became involved in possible legislation after ending its lengthy investigation and review of BYU police’s records sharing practices.

Attorney general’s officials announced this week that they decided in March to not file criminal charges against BYU police Lt. Aaron Rhoades. Records obtained by The Tribune showed Rhoades accessed Provo police records at the behest of the private university’s Honor Code Office and relayed intimate details about a reported sexual assault in one case — but it’s unclear whether the lieutenant’s records access was wider spread. A records request is pending.

The Honor Code at BYU forbids alcohol and coffee, restricts contact between male and female students, imposes a strict dress code, and bans expressions of romantic affection between people of the same gender.

State officials did not disclose their decision to not file charges until more than six months later, releasing a declination letter to The Tribune on Monday after months of saying their review of a 2016 Department of Public Safety investigation was still pending.

Ric Cantrell, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ chief of staff, said that since the attorney general’s office declined to prosecute, they have worked with BYU and others about what to do next — which has included pursuing legislation that would require transparency.

Cantrell also said changes were made within the police department in connection to the records-sharing issue, but declined to elaborate.

“We are satisfied that the structure that allowed this to happen has been remedied,” he said.

BYU police officials were unavailable for comment Tuesday.

The state Department of Public Safety began investigating in May 2016 how BYU police access records in a countywide law enforcement database that includes information about traffic stops, arrests and investigative reports. The investigation was intended to look into “access and dissemination issues including any possible violations related to the sexual assault reporting situation at BYU,” DPS officials said in a written statement released in June 2016.

Documents, which were verified by Provo police, show that an Honor Code investigator contacted Rhoades in November 2015 and asked him to seek information on a rape case reported by then-student Madi Barney. The lieutenant accessed the Provo Police Department's case involving Barney that day, and relayed intimate details to an Honor Code investigator.

Barney subsequently was forbidden from enrolling in future classes unless she submitted to an Honor Code investigation, which a prosecutor unsuccessfully asked the school to delay until the criminal case was resolved. The case ended in an acquittal in October 2016.

Barney was among several students who spoke out in 2016, seeking change at the university. These students said they reported sexual assaults and then were investigated by BYU’s Honor Code Office. That October, the university announced widespread changes aimed at improving the school’s response to sexual misconduct — including an Honor Code amnesty policy for victims or witnesses of sexual assault.